Choosing Sides
In summer of 2023, Target removed much of its LGBTQ+ Pride merchandise after threats to employees. melissamn /

Choosing Sides

Staking out a position on controversial issues is marketing's new frontier. How's it working out?

Pride celebrations have come and gone, but their legacy continues for a couple big national brands, one of them local. As you may recall, Target and Bud Light both became national news subjects, in a way that brands don’t really want.

It got me wondering about authenticity in marketing, why brands increasingly want to burrow into complicated social issues, and whether it’s something consumers expect or want.

It started when Bud Light decided, as a March Madness marketing gambit, to engage trans TikTok influencer Dylan Mulvaney to promote the beer on social media. It was an idea that reeked of youthful executives without adequate supervision. The effort rankled Bud Light loyalists and produced a boycott that reportedly tanked the product’s sales.

The Anheuser Busch exec responsible was supposedly trying to water down the beer’s frat-boy vibe. Taking probably the most high-pitched social issue of the day—gender identity—and rubbing it in the snout of a traditionally minded customer base is a tactic reflective of the moral high ground mindset that plays out in social media every day.

Things got rough at Target Corp. as well, when the chain’s stores moved an edgy collection of Pride merch front and center and got heat because some of it included emphatic messaging about trans rights and a swimwear item designed to hide a certain body part. In some communities this sparked public displays of opposition, creating hostile environments for Target store workers. The company decided to de-emphasize the displays in some stores.

That response continues to reverberate on the culturally progressive retailer. Target is clearly eager to wade into topical social conversations, including the fraught area of gender identity transition, even in markets where that would accrue little benefit to its bottom line or team morale. (Full disclosure: My wife and son are Target employees.)

Both controversies felt unnecessary and left me scratching my head. I’m not a marketing savant, so I called Aaron KellerTCB‘s marketing expert and co-founder of Capsule Agency in Minneapolis—for a gut check.

“Marketers typically engage in a risk assessment before stepping into a particular issue,” he told me. “Bud Light was lazy in how it approached its audience, and Target,” well-intended as it was, “saw it come back on them.”

“The social pressure to be in the conversation is profound. It’s driving companies to occupy controversial or divisive positions because [the perception is] if you’re not in that conversation, you’re against it.” 

—Aaron Keller, co-founder, Capsule Agency

Keller sees the growing effort to align products with social issues as a form of signaling, an outgrowth of an era of purpose-driven marketing pioneered by companies like Patagonia. Now marketers confuse doing good with aligning themselves with righteousness. Even worse, he says, Bud Light was “telling a lie about its business,” since trans issues “had never been part of its DNA.”

For Target, Keller suspects it merely felt the need to be relevant. “The social pressure to be in the conversation is profound. It’s driving companies to occupy controversial or divisive positions because [the perception is] if you’re not in that conversation, you’re against it.” This is a logical extension of the anti-racism paradigm, which states that individuals and entities that offer only tacit support for BIPOC rights—rather than working actively on their behalf—are also sort of bigots.

Not long ago, the Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of business beyond solely serving shareholders. As that mindset becomes more pervasive, Keller suggests, there is growing pressure within marketing to stake out positions that would previously have been deemed too risky or with no upside. Companies will learn, he says, they don’t need to be in every conversation.

But try telling that to CEOs. Target’s employees are telling it otherwise. Even more prosaic businesses like electric utilities are feeling the heat.

In a profile of outstanding director Lynn Casey in our latest issue, Xcel Energy CEO Bob Frenzel laments the current pressure even on utilities: “The last four years have been particularly challenging in managing community/employee relations. … We’ve been asked [by employees and community members] to be involved in non-traditional areas of corporate engagement…. Picking sides has never been a goal of mine.”

Maybe he should just think of it as an exciting new regulatory burden.

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